Latin America's two left feet

Two types of leftists have arisen in Latin America since the cold war, when the US fought a war by proxy in Nicaragua against the Soviet-backed Sandinista regime. With the head of the deposed Sandinistas, Daniel Ortega, apparently elected as the new president, the question is: Which type of leftist leader is he?

Will he remain true to his Marxist past and follow the strongman model of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez or even Cuba's Fidel Castro, eroding his nation's democracy to stay in power, nationalizing key parts of the economy, and baiting the US in a regional contest for influence?

Or will Mr. Ortega follow the strategy of leftist leaders like those in Brazil and Chile who try to carefully adjust their market economies to uplift the poor and avoid confronting the US?

Even before Ortega's victory, the Bush administration was so sure that he would follow the path of Venezuela that it openly threatened a reduction of aid and trade if he won. The US cited his promise to seek extensive cooperation with Cuba and Venezuela.

It was a clumsy move, unlike recent US restraint from meddling in other left-right elections in the region. And it may have even backfired by giving Ortega a few extra voter percentage points needed to win.

As it is, most Nicaraguans are unsure of Ortega's claim that his days as the gun-toting, antimarket "El Comandante" are over. He may have won with less than 40 percent of the vote, barely beating a severely split conservative camp. The fact that 3 out of 5 voters still don't trust him will do far more to constrain the Sandinistas than will blunt intervention by Washington.

The US needs to have more faith that Latin Americans still prefer democracy and open markets, despite slow progress to reduce poverty and wealth disparities. One sign of that sentiment was Venezuela's spectacular loss among regional governments for its bid last month to gain a seat on the UN Security Council. And in Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico, Mr. Chávez's recent attempts to influence elections have not helped leftist candidates.

Ortega has lost three elections since 1990, and this time he had to strike a deal with right-wing politicians to alter election rules so he could win with a low percentage of votes. Despite his embrace of Chávez and acceptance of Venezuelan aid to his campaign, he hardly has a history of mandates to adopt Chávez's ways.

His country is unlikely to become a launch pad for anti-US foreign powers, as was feared in the 1980s. Nicaragua now relies on the US economy for about a third of its exports and on millions of dollars in remittances from Nicaraguans in the US. And the country has just started to benefit from a US-Central American free-trade pact. Those elements are essential to any leader who wants to end Nicaragua's status as the second-poorest nation in Latin America.

Venezuela appears to be losing the competition with the US for a different vision of the region's future. Chávez leftism is unappealing to many democratic but leftist leaders. Ortega says he is now a pragmatist. Nothing could be more pragmatic than following successful leftist leaders like those in Brazil and Chile.

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